Back in 2006, a mere five years after the horrors of 9/11, a little feature called United 93 crept onto silver screens. While fundamentally inoffensive and even vaguely noble in its intended purpose, it provided to its viewers the thoroughly uncomfortable situation of seeing a recent tragedy put on camera and embellished with fictional additions. Thirteen years on from that outing, and 11 years on from the attacks depicted in this film, Hotel Mumbai - writer-director Anthony Maras' debut - walks down the same path, and produces a decidedly mixed bag.
There is undoubtedly dedication here, and even some underlying purity of purpose. Hotel Mumbai takes a vaguely documentarial approach to its proceedings, with the majority of the action unfolding in a meticulously recreated set of the Taj Mahal hotel, the most recognisable target of 26/11. Within a sprawling set that was constructed in both Mumbai and Maras' own Adelaide, the sprawling passageways of the Taj Mahal are recreated with painstaking precision and attention to detail. There is a solid layer of there is a persistent sense of dread that permeates the feature, and it is devoted to being as 'real' as conceivably possible in the execution of its fleeting action sequences which are uncompromisingly brutal and end often as swiftly as they start, serving to paint an accurate picture of the harrowing nature of the situation, further boosted by tight and often claustrophobic cinematography. The acting on display - some of it, at least, primarily Dev Patel's - is generally solid, and they sell the situation well, up to and including the moneyed guests of the hotel played by such individuals as Arnie Hammer and Jason Isaacs, starring as an ensemble of composite characters. There is care taken in the portrayal of primal and visceral fear here, as well as honour displayed towards the sacrifices made by those affected, and that is commendable - yet there is an inherent undercurrent of gnawing wrongness that makes itself steadily apparent as the film proceeds.
In this regard, the film is left wanting in that it feels bereft of anything to say beyond the obvious, instead finding itself content with reducing human terror and suffering to slicky-crafted setpieces bolstered by a small smattering of recognisable stars. There is no anchor around which the film revolves, no tether for the audience to connect to and consequently no real viewpoint to take, and so the end result amounts to a Paul Greengrass feature without the fixed perspective or human element - we are marrooned as observers watching bloodshed and chaos unfold, and despite the undeniable polish, instead of serving as something more informative than an eye-opener, we are made to watch as a matter of delicacy and tragedy is made into something resembling a run-of-the-mill action thriller flick. There is talent involved, but as the focus sharpens across the film's running time, it slides further into becoming a macabre popcorn feature of sorts, with no purpose other than vaguely enlightening people and distracting them for two hours. In addition, while the use of real personalities admittedly presents its own set of problems, the decision to have the cast be comprised of a hodgepodge of composite characters serves to lessen the emotional impact of some sequences, as we are distanced from the reality of the situation through watching the ordeals of characters that are, at least partly, fabrications. The performances save this to an extent, but the effect remains, and combined with the rising sense of discomfort, the sensation created is disquieting.
Hotel Mumbai does serve to shine a light on an event that is in need of more exploration elsewhere, and partially succeeds, but the result is a film that ends up being eerily, almost disconcertingly distant and dehumanising, a crime against humanity transformed into spectacle. While not lurid, it is troublesome - and thus, while this might serve as an effective primer, I recommend looking elsewhere if you wish to actually be properly informed.